For those pursuing a life in the arts, retirement is generally not an issue. Successful artists tend to pursue their craft as long as they are physically able, and there are many examples of art careers, like those of Titian or Pablo Casals, that span half a century or more. Eastern Washington Painter Gaylen Hansen is decidedly one of those long-lived artists . Now in his eighties, Hansen has been working and exhibiting since the early 1950s, mostly in the Northwest. His current show at Linda Hodges is as bright, brash, and energetic as ever. Much in evidence is Hansen’s cast of wacky animal characters, his horseback-riding alter ego, the Kernal, and his trademark joie de vivre. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Let’s start with a little art history. When Jackson Pollock was anointed by Life Magazine in 1949 as the most famous artist in America, the triumph of abstraction over traditional art seemed complete. All through the 50s, serious young artists abandoned representation for stripes, spatters, and fields of highly charged paint strokes. But things started to change in the next decade, when artists like former Pollock crony and abstract expressionist Philip Guston returned to recognizable imagery, and things have never been quite the same since.
Like the somewhat older Guston, the path of Gaylen Hansen also took him from abstraction to representation, and telltale traces of his artistic origins remain. Take a look at the paint drips and blizzard of brushstrokes in works like "Brown Bear and Shadow," or "Red Striped Cat," and the influence of abstraction is clear. Take a look at the deliberately crude black glove and minimalist jar in "Yellow Jar and Glove" and one is reminded of a similar deceptive simplicity in the later work of Philip Guston.
But while his East Coast counterparts created art that was internalized, conflicted, and even tortured, Hansen pursued a different path. In taking his inspiration from a lifetime spent in the rural West, Hansen created a world that is frequently buoyant, energetic, and joyous, tinged with an infectious humor. Even when painting a battle scene, like the dramatically confrontational "Dogs and Ducks," Hansen presents the violence in nature with tolerance, even bemusement.
What’s most interesting about Hansen’s work is how inventive he continues to be within his own self-defined universe. He rarely repeats himself, and each show seems to introduce some new element — in the current exhibit, there is a new and peculiar race of vacant-eyed, semi-mechanical ducks, and he has also started experimenting with using acrylic paint instead of oil for some of the larger works.
Ducks, in fact, provide some of the most pleasurable moments in the show, whether it is simply striding in profile across a field of lush, flat orange paint with a cloud of orbiting paint spots, viewed through a window in an electric red brick wall, or racing through a field of flame-like tulips, legs caught in mid-action like Muybridge’s galloping horses.
Though Hansen’s animal subjects at times flirt with cuteness, their over-sized scale, quirky simplification, and painterly smarts keeps the cuddle factor well under control. And it’s a long way from a lovable pet to those giant, villainous-looking cats, peering out at us like beasts about to pounce. In one such picture, a fierce white feline with red stripes relentlessly approaches through a field of green-gray grass, the grass itself a curtain of vibrating paint.
Several still lives fill out the exhibition, allowing for a very different sort of artistic statement. In one painting, entitled "Still Life with Red Balls etc.," a flickering array of gloves, paintbrushes, matchbooks, animal parts and half-hidden figures create a tapestry-like surface, a lush visual inventory of Hansen’s various preoccupations. In another still life, Hansen reveals an almost metaphysical interest in issues of representation and illusion. Highly dimensional billiard balls, ladders, and duck decoys exist in a realm whose contradictory visual cues make it impossible to determine what is close and what is far, what lies flat and what does not.
Ultimately, we don’t need a deeper meaning to justify a painting like the diminutive, "Duck and Ice Cream Cone" on the gallery’s second floor. In this image, a wingless, strutting duck poses next to a partiallly-eaten vanilla Fudgsicle. Compositionally, the picture is simplicity itself: a dark brown square, the ice cream, placed next to a bright white circle, the duck, against a background of muted pink. Pleasures of the body, pleasures of the eye, pleasures of paint — for Gaylen Hansen, a lifetime’s worth of work.